The other day I had a reference question that reminded me of the importance of digital literacy and how this may be becoming more important than written literacy. An older gentleman came to me and asked if I could help him pay a bill online. This began an odyssey of locating various websites, accounts and password resets. In my own life I navigate these waters pretty effortlessly, but one could say I was born digital and spend a good amount of time on a computer. Managing my life online is near second nature and I barely give it another thought. However, this encounter put me out of this comfort zone and into the maddeningly complex world of the Internet.
I have had conversations with people who lamented that it was difficult to do anything these days without being online. There is a certain truth to this. It is nearly impossible not to be online. Just about every aspect of our lives must be managed online. As one example, my apartment complex a few months ago let its residence know that they could no longer pay rent in person or check. They had to do it online. I understand that for the apartment this streamlines their processing of rental fees, but for the residents it could present problems. Besides yet another online account vulnerable to attack with a password that needed to be remembered it possibly made life less convenient for them. If they do not own a computer or subscribe to the internet, they now had to find Internet access instead of just dropping off the check.
With managing your life online comes further complications. There is no international standard for online account user interfaces. Just about every bank, phone company, credit card company, etc. has their own unintuitive interface that users must learn to navigate and interpret; as opposed to justing writing a check and sticking it in the mail. For most users, I would wager they only visit these sites once a month. Unless you spend a majority of your time on the Internet, paying your bills online may be like traversing the same complex maze once a month. It feels familiar but you are still lost. Indeed, I felt this with the user I was helping.
I have heard discussions of digital literacy as part of the library mission, but had never experienced it in a such consequential way. Libraries play a role in not just showing where the information is, but teaching people how to manage their lives in the new digital world. Perhaps there is a certain generation gap but I am also willing to bet that there is demographic gap; the so-called digital divide that is much discussed in library circles. Can we really say that all children are getting the computer literacy skills they need in school? When they graduate will they be able to manage every aspect of their lives from the Internet?
The user left happy but I expect similiar questions in the future.